Bluegrass museum board has big plans

The dreams are big. But local members of the International Bluegrass Music Museum’s board of trustees say they believe the dreams can become reality within five to 10 years.

They talk about a Bluegrass Opry — a bluegrass version of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry — on Saturday nights during the fall, winter and spring.

They talk about a three-night-a-week bluegrass musical production every summer.

They’re working on plans for a national bluegrass disc jockey convention, expanding the local “Bluegrass in the Schools” program statewide, creating a music film festival and promoting concerts by the roots and branches of bluegrass including blues, gospel, Cajun, jazz and Americana.

And they talk about more than 100,000 bluegrass fans visiting Owensboro each year and an economic impact of more than $25 million from bluegrass by 2016.

But all that hinges on a campaign to raise $7 million — to be added to $3 million already pledged by the city — that kicks off this month.

Terry Woodward, board chairman, expects the money to be raised by March.

And he wants construction to begin in April to turn the old State Office Building at Second and Frederica streets into a 64,000-square-foot International Bluegrass Music Center.

The center would include a 30,000-square-foot museum, a 1,000-seat state-of-the-art indoor theater, outdoor festival seating for 2,000, a 4,500-square-foot bluegrass-themed restaurant with outdoor seating, an expanded gift shop and “niche venues for bluegrass vendors.”

Woodward wants it to open in April 2014 — just 20 months from now.

The museum opened in a “preview mode” in 1992 and full-time in 2002.

Now it’s time to move to the next level, Woodward said.

The key to the center’s success, he said, is the Bluegrass Opry, an idea that’s been kicked around since March 1989. The idea of a summer musical has been talked about since 2005.

“This could be the strongest thing we do,” Woodward said. “Everybody would know that if they came to Owensboro on a Saturday night during the school year, they could see a bluegrass show.”

During the summer months, when bluegrass bands are busy with festivals, he wants to see a musical play running between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

“The key (to the success of the Bluegrass Opry) is radio and TV,” Woodward said. “You need that exposure. I’d like our Opry to have members like the Grand Ole Opry has. A lot of the bands we had at ROMP would love to play for the exposure if we have radio and TV.”

Gabrielle Gray, the museum’s executive director, said several NPR stations are interested in the idea. “And we could work with WNIN (in Evansville) to try to get on PBS,” she said.

NPR stations saw the value of bluegrass programming during ROMP, Gray said, when WNIN radio’s “listenership went from 230 on a typical Saturday night to 1,927 when they were broadcasting the performance of Old Crow Medicine Show.”

On Saturday, she said, WAMU radio in Washington, D.C., “the mothership of NPR,” will begin airing performances recorded at ROMP on its “Open Mic” program.

“This is terrific news,” Gray said.

“We’ll know we’ve arrived when people start calling wanting to be on the Bluegrass Opry,” Ross Leazenby, one of the board members, said recently.

Woodward said the musical would likely run Thursday through Saturday — at least at first.

“We will have to build the audience before we expand into more nights,” he said. “The worst thing you can do is play to an empty theater.”

It’s possible, Woodward said, that the musical could have a different guest artist each week.

“That would add a level of excitement,” he said.

“We could do a different musical each year,” Gray said. “And, after a while, we could have a different one running each night we’re open during the week.”

That would keep bluegrass tourists in town for more than one day, she said.

Streaming video on the Internet can be a profit center for the museum, Woodward said.

“WaxWorks (the company he owns) put together a video for the NBA — ‘Greatest Slam Dunks’,” he said. “We put it on Hulu and in the first two months, it’s been streamed 151,000 times. We get $1.25 for each of them.”

The museum needs to “own our content from ROMP and the Bluegrass Opry and stream it,” Woodward said. “We could share the money with the artists. WaxWorks can get it on all the streaming sites for us.”

Gray said the most watched video from ROMP so far this year on YouTube is a song by the 23 String Band that had had 746 hits by Wednesday. YouTube is free, however.

Woodward said having a 60,000-square-foot facility — roughly three times the size of the current museum — will likely lead to a major increase in the number of people taking music lessons at the museum.

Gray said the classes enrolled 323 students — two-thirds of them children — this year. That was up from 209 last year.

“If we take on more faculty, we can expand,” she said. “We have several students from Louisville and southern Indiana now.”

“We can expand into more of the region,” Woodward said. “In 10 years, we could realistically have 1,000 students.”

He also wants to see the museum add camps for students who want intensive instruction.

It currently offers a Bill Monroe-style mandolin camp each September. But guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle and Dobro camps could easily be added, Woodward said.

He said with the new facility, the museum’s staff will have to roughly double from the current eight full-time-equivalent jobs to 15.

“We’ll need more marketing, curatorial and events staff,” Gray said.

“I think we could have a music film festival every year,” Woodward said. “With all the film we have, people could spend a week here and never watch the same thing twice.”

The museum has filmed interviews with some 200 bluegrass pioneers and completed documentaries on most of those.

The film festival idea has been talked about since 2003.

“We could trade some of our material with other film festivals and have an annual event where we show our films and other people’s music documentaries,” Gray said. “It needs to be in the winter when we’re not as busy.”

Woodward said films could be shown in the theater that’s being planned in the proposed center “during the day, and we could have music performances at night.”

He said the museum needs to “incorporate bluegrass music from other countries. We’d like to have a Japanese wing, an Eastern European wing and others.”

And Woodward would like to create a national bluegrass disc jockey convention in Owensboro.

“They used to have a convention during IBMA’s World of Bluegrass,” he said. “They talked about moving it here a couple of years ago, but we didn’t have any place to hold it then. They would like to come back to Owensboro. I think that’s a strong possibility and bluegrass artists come to that convention. It may be in the convention center rather than the bluegrass center, but that’s just a block away.”

Gray said several colleges and universities have bluegrass programs, some of them leading to degrees.

“We might have a convention with classes during the summer for those students,” she said. “We could draw a lot of hot musicians here.”

“That could be a great outdoor program,” Woodward said.

Leazenby said the new center needs to try to attract support from Sirius XM satellite radio.

“I would love to see ‘Bluegrass Junction’ come out of Owensboro rather than Nashville,” he said.

“Bluegrass Junction” is a bluegrass music channel on Sirius XM.

Woodward said the restaurant that’s being proposed for the bluegrass center should be like a Hard Rock Cafe for bluegrass with memorabilia on the walls.

Rosemary Conder, one of the trustees, said she’s hoping the restaurant will specialize in barbecue.

“To not have barbecue downtown hurts my feelings,” she said.

Gray said the restaurant needs to have a license to sell alcoholic beverages to help it be profitable.

Woodward said he would like to expand the museum’s “Bluegrass in the Schools” program statewide.

Some 8,500 local school children now take part in the program each January.

With a recording studio at the proposed center, he said earlier, the program could be sent statewide via computer.

“We could charge $100 per school and never have budget problems again,” he said last year.

This year, the museum’s ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival sold 18,451 tickets to 9,745 people from dozens of states and at least six countries. Many people bought tickets for all three days, which means that ticket sales outnumbered the people attending.

Children 14 and under did not need tickets if they were accompanied by a paying adult.

Gray estimated that total attendance was around 21,000.

An estimated 28 percent of those visited the museum while they were in town, she said.

“It was crowded all three days,” Gray said. “And we sold $16,000 worth of merchandise at the museum and at Yellow Creek Park.”

ROMP attendance has grown from 7,000 in 2010 to 15,000 in 2011 to 21,000 this year.

The museum is anticipating more growth next year.

“Of the first 500 responses to a survey we’re conducting, 90 percent said they are exceedingly likely to attend next year,” Gray said.

The bluegrass center would work to promote all the bluegrass activities in the area, she said, including the Monroe Homeplace in Ohio County and the “Uncle Pen” cabin that James Monroe, Bill Monroe’s son, is building near Rosine.

Woodward said the center will likely do even more than the board now expects.

“When we put plans together for the RiverPark Center (in the late 1980s), we tried to imagine all the things it could be used for,” he said. “We didn’t come close to envisioning what it became.”

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